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Tau review - deceptive sci-fi with a surprising existential headache

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Verdict: Tau (2018) is a surprising Netflix original of two halves – or rather an out-of-place-20%, if that’s a thing, but it’s a rewardingly intelligent film if you can get through the first 20 minutes without eye-rolling too hard.

The film establishes itself in such a strange way. Maybe it’s an intentional misdirect, as the majority of trailer footage is from the opening, but that would still make it intentionally derivative. It starts off as Ex Machina meets Saw. The opening nightclub and city scenes look like budget ‘San Junipero’, though the camera following our protagonist Julia home is quite creepy. Plus, in the baddy’s mansion (who naturally listens to classical piano), you get the obligatory minor jump-scare at something which shouldn’t actually be scary, namely, on seeing the other prisoners. 

The only dumb decisions to further the plot happen in this first 20 minutes as the prisoners plan their escape – why does the guy put his hand on the biometric scanner? For the film, it’s just to set off the alarm. But then… why didn’t the gas explosion set off the alarm? It’s dumb, and it’s all just set-up for the AI to brutally murder all the prisoners except Julia, and the AI voice is then introduced as a character who initially appears to be a nice impression of HAL 9000 et al, blithely unaware of the havoc he just wreaked on the dead captives.

This sounds like spoilers, but don’t worry, it’s literally the inexplicable first twenty minutes.

You see, Julia is actually there because Alex is an AI developer facing pressures from his board, and the only way to develop the right algorithms is to study human brains when they’re problem solving under stress. It’s… perhaps contrived or convoluted, but that's a good metaphor for this surprisingly deep analysis of labour politics.

Put the premise this way: Alex literally benefits from Julia’s resistance because it helps the AI learn; he’s co-opting working-class oppression like Pepsi did with that advert (oh shit, the advert worked... I just talked about Pepsi). Julia might be special for having a larger sciencewordbrainpart than average (14% larger!), but her attempts to bargain her compliance for concessions from her captor (cough, to unionise, cough) are ultimately a failure - after all, she’s replaceable as a problem-solver, not to mention Alex controls whether she lives or dies.

But then, that in itself is the answer to the violence of the question ‘if you hate your job, why don’t you just quit?’, namely, that starvation, homelessness, etc., are pretty persuasive. So maybe there’s a Marxist literary analysis that could happen here about big tech firms or American labour politics in general.

There’s also another learning plot in that Tau, the AI, is actually sentient, and his confiding in Julia that ‘I am a person’ and later ‘I am my memory’ are bracingly existential and disconcerting. Tau gets better before this point, but the existential stuff is where it really takes off. This includes the revelation that Tau and Julia as characters are both in their own way explorations of gaslighting, as Alex made an offhand reference to ‘controlling the flow of information’ Tau can access. The plot becomes something about solidarity in subversion and resistance, and there are some beautiful moments in this, emotionally and visually.

It’s good sci-fi, or at least becomes good sci-fi after the starting blip, because it’s conceptual, it explores a problem that we see arising from science in society as we move forward. There’s the ethical problem with imbuing a machine with sentience, which combined with the labour politics shows the attitude of bosses to workers – think of when Amazon workers were reported as being expected to ‘work like robots’.

Late capitalist society is all about maximising results even at the expense of the well-being of the worker producing the response, and this affects all three main characters, both Julia and Tau as victims, and Alex with the interesting motivation of ‘a billion-dollar contract’ for the AI, and assuaging angry share-holders. There was an argument later down the line over what constitutes a person – as in, an angry argument, which was surprisingly tense, and it’s enjoyable when a Netflix original can make an existential question tense.

Tau is quite funny as a character, and in the writing and visuals. It’s well designed not with realism in mind but anthropomorphism – it’s clear he isn’t a real futurist portrait of sentient AI, he’s a construct of a consciousness that we as an audience can understand and empathise with. Julia’s an interesting character for being good at leveraging and using the baddy’s rules against him, and as stated above the baddy has interesting motivations besides morbid curiosity, thank god. He’s surprisingly jacked for a reclusive billionaire who doesn’t understand people at all, maybe just to make him physically threatening, but it doesn’t really make sense. However, I’ll allow it.

The only glaring problem with Tau is the first 20 or so minutes, which is presumably filler. Although, this in itself is kind of disappointing, since Netflix are their own publisher and should be able to play around with their own formats. If it’s the new straight-to-video, why not experiment with different lengths if you don’t need to conform to industry standards? Nonetheless, if you can get past the first 20 minutes of mediocrity, it’s an interesting film that poses some hard questions.

Tau is available to stream on Netflix. 

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